What if Apple Designed SharePoint?

Before I get started on this post, I need to be honest with two important points.  First, I realize that Apple would most likely never desire to create a product like SharePoint.  Apple is primarily a consumer electronics company and not as concerned with the corporate world. Secondly, I’m thoroughly an Apple user, and I do enjoy all their products but am still a Microsoft man.  This is common amongst many Microsoft consultants because we are consumers as well as producers.

This post contrasts the design philosophies and approaches that underpin both Apple and Microsoft.  It is meant to be a conversation starter and not a way to flame either side.  If it weren’t for SharePoint, I couldn’t afford all my (admittely) over-priced Apple products.  Let’s now consider the question of what SharePoint might look like if Apple designed the product.

Native Apps Emphasis Over Web Apps

I think the most striking difference we would see is a fundamental shift away from the browser for SharePoint.  SharePoint at it’s core is a platform wrapped in a web application.  To work with SharePoint, by and large, means working in a browser.  Now of course the Office products and SharePoint Workspace do interact with SharePoint as desktop products, but the primary intent of SharePoint is to function within a web UI.

Apple on the other hand creates internet services only to enhance native apps. iCloud is a great example to illustrate this philosophy. While iCloud has a minimal web UI, it is not advertised extensively and wasn’t even mentioned (from what I can remember) when Jobs unveiled it. The emphasis at the unveiling was all about how the service would enhance native applications on iOS: Photo Stream synced your photos between devices, and “documents in the cloud” was a way to enhance native the iWork applications on iOS.

Consumers First, Power Users Second

I think the thing that frustrates most “power users” or “tinkerers” with Apple’s products is that it feels dumbed down.  There are settings, but it is nowhere near the expectation of a user familiar with lots of perceived flexibility. Apple presents their products for someone to get started right away with little issue. You hear stories of how grandma or a two-year-old could work an iPad, which is suppose to extol the usability of Apple products, but I’ve never heard that about a Microsoft product.

Microsoft, by and large from my perception, has power users in mind and scale back for more casual users.  If you’ve worked with the control panel in Windows as well as the settings in OS X, you see an immediate contrast.  SharePoint is no different.   Working with the settings for the library in the ribbon or settings page immediately clue in to the complexity of the product.  I’ve been working with SharePoint for several years, and I still don’t feel like I understand every setting just in a document library!

One of my favorite UX principles is the delicate balance between usability and functionality. Ideally, they meet in the middle and provide a good balance. Apple favors simplicity over extensive amounts of functionality, and Microsoft does the opposite. In truth, they both use with a little more balanced position, but I’m not here to criticize either in this post.

A Very Different Third-Party Ecosystem

I think another big area of difference is how the third-party ecosystems are handled. Apple is notorious for a rigorous review process which they want to handle both in the mobile and desktop space. Microsoft on the other hand recognizes third-party vendors (and sometimes buy them) but doesn’t distribute applications themselves.  Right now, Microsoft leaves the vetting of these products to the individual organization.  If I were a betting man, I’d venture to say this will in some way change in “SharePoint 15″ largely in part to the success of companies like Apple.

The SharePoint ecosystem is massive, and it makes for an extremely attractive feature to an already massive product.  However, the quality of these products also varies considerably.  I’ve seen products that are absolutely amazing and others that should never have been sold publicly.  Unlike Apple, Microsoft doesn’t publish any HCI guidelines, and this has a huge impact. I often said, “This app doesn’t feel like a Mac/iOS app,” but I’ve never said, “This SharePoint add-on doesn’t feel like a SharePoint tool.”

Marketing People Not Technology

As I’ve watched Apple over the last few years, I’ve realized how much certain marketing tactics can actually shape the way you feel emotionally about a product. They are well known for their marketing prowess and for good reason.  Almost every Apple ad or other marketing endeavor focuses on the result of technology, which ultimately highlights people, and not the product itself.  Ads for the iPhone 4 showed a dad on a business trip doing a Facetime call with his newborn child, and recent iPad apps show kids learning math on the device.

In contrast, Microsoft ads by and large talk about the technology itself and not a means to an end.  This isn’t always true, and I think Microsoft and other companies are shifting away from it due to the influence of companies like Apple; but it is still very prevelant. Microsoft has had some odd marketing choices recently from using Jerry Seinfeld to their absolutely worthless Office “vision” videos.  Anything on SharePoint from Microsoft has always focused on the technology. Granted, SharePoint and an iPad have different markets, but I would much rather see an engaging ad on SharePoint that talked about how people were improved not some sterile business process.

A Unified Approach to a Family of Products

The last thing I’d like to mention is how I think Apple would handle differently the creation of a “family” of server products. By this I mean SharePoint, Lync, Exchange, O365.  If there is one thing Microsoft understand much better than Apple is integration. I am sometimes amazed at how Exchange, Lync, and SharePoint can work together; but when you work with each one of the products it is apparent that individual teams with individual leaders are designing their own experiences with the product (i.e. Why don’t Lync and Exchange online use a ribbon?). I feel like I’m postulating here quite a bit, but I feel like if Apple approached the experience design between all these products it would be more similiar.

I don’t think the lack of end-user experience is only between these server products. There are times in SharePoint that I wonder how the experience can be so different even inside the product (I even started a blog pointing all these things out).  Apple is fortunate that they had a Jobs who could almost singlehandedly touch every part of the company, but I feel like Microsoft could gain from a single person designing and coördinating the experiences across all of their server products. I sometimes feel like Microsoft creates by outlining features (instead of designing an overarching UX) and then creating the product by diving out tasks to disparate developers (which is how most consultants work).

Conclusion

SharePoint is a great product with a lot of potential, and it’s quite apparent that there’s nothing but limitless excitement right now for the product. I think Microsoft is getting the clue from the success of other companies like Apple and are changing their approach drastically, and that should excite anyone involved with the Microsoft family of products.

5 Responses

  1. Seb Matthews February 6, 2012 / 3:11 am

    If Apple designed SharePoint it would have more proprietary spinning parts and would only work with documents and data that Apple said were ok..!

    Interesting post though. Thoughtful.

  2. George Everitt March 16, 2012 / 12:00 am

    Interesting article. Unfortunately, Apple is not very good at enterprise software at all. The demise of iWork.com, the wretched disregard for Pro user sensibilities with Final Cut Pro X, and the flakiness of iCloud (yes, I said it — iCloud is flakey) does not make me think that Apple would build anything that companies would use for mission critical applications. Not that SharePoint a paragon of design integrity; there’s still COM in there for crying out loud.

    Apple is a consumer product company, and it is pretty clear that they are slowly abandoning power users. That’s fine with me — as long as they don’t dumb down the Mac too much into IOS territory. Mountain Lion does not bode well for Mac geeks. There may even be a release of Mac OS-X that does away with Terminal.app. When that happens, I’ll probably go back to Windows, crying in betrayal. I bet Woz will join me, too.

  3. Kevin May 31, 2012 / 1:41 pm

    This SharePoint add-on doesn’t feel like a SharePoint tool.”

    That’s actually one of the big reasons we didn’t go with CorasWorks. It basically builds an application environment inside and separate from the SharePoint environment which would just confuse the hell out of our users.

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